Thursday 23 July 2020

JDN - Eric Thean : PWAs:
Apple's forbidden fruit?

JDN - Eric Thean : PWAs: Apple's forbidden fruit?

In 2017, Gartner predicted that Progressive Web Apps (PWA) would replace 50% of native apps by 2020. While we are still some way from that figure, this forecast reflects just how much the concept put forward by Google in 2015 represented the future for many specialists. The adoption of PWAs by market players was only a matter of time, except for one company that is a major part of the digital landscape and likes to call the shots – Apple.

As explained in my previous article, they offer clear advantages for users as they attempt to bring together the best of both the web and stores, in order to provide an optimal, unrestricted experience. PWAs are also a fantastic opportunity for advertisers to optimise the ROI of digital projects, by concentrating their investments on a single channel.

PWAs and Apple: the time is not yet ripe

The aim of PWAs is to provide an experience that is close to that offered by a native app downloaded from a store, but within a browser. What does this mean for users? No download requirement, installation of an icon on the home screen for immediate access, full-screen display for greater reading comfort, low-bandwidth connection or offline functionality for continuous use... In addition to all this, PWAs use native mobile functions, making it possible to use geolocation, mobile payment services and notifications, among other things, at least on most smartphones. 

The range of possibilities is narrowed with Apple's iOS and Safari browser. When using a PWA on an iPhone, users may be faced with some limitations:

  • There is no prompt for users to add the icon to their home screen, which is one of the main strengths of native apps, ensuring their visibility and fast access. It is still possible to get around this limitation manually, but the intention is not the same.
  • It is not possible to open a link in Safari from a PWA. The absence of a smooth link between the various interfaces disrupts the journey and obstructs user navigation.
  • Push notifications for the web are not supported, even though they represent one of the most powerful assets on mobile and help build user loyalty.

And yet the approach promoted by Steve Jobs in 2007, when the first iPhone was announced, placed great emphasis on web apps. A few months later, in 2008, the App Store and its native applications were launched, achieving the success for which it is now famous.

How to explain these limitations?

It is fair to ask why such a successful and well-known company as Apple does not seem to be living up to expectations when it comes to PWAs. I think it is safe to say that the problem is nothing to do with Apple's skills or understanding of the market. Time and time again, the American multinational has demonstrated its ability to create new trends and uses, which are then rapidly picked up by its competitors.

So how to explain this lack of initiative in relation to PWAs?

A closed ecosystem

It is no secret that Apple's ecosystem is closed to the outside world. Whether in terms of its devices, operating systems, software programs or accessories, the brand with the "bitten apple" logo leaves little room for sharing. By the way, if you have an iPhone with several browsers installed on it, you may have noticed that PWAs only work on Safari!

This technology giant positions itself as a pioneer and not a follower. And what better way to maintain control and impose its standards than by building its own ecosystem? There is therefore a certain degree of incompatibility with an approach oriented to the open environment of the web. This philosophy contributes strongly to Apple's image as a premium brand, enabling it to stand out among its main rivals, including Google, which has adopted a far more open strategy.

Google: its best enemy

The term 'Progressive Web App' was created in 2015 by designer Frances Berriman and engineer Alex Russell, who are members of the Google Chrome team (and also husband and wife). Since then, the firm has maintained its efforts to promote PWAs. At the beginning of 2020, Google announced that it wanted to gradually phase out Chrome Apps (used by less than 1% of its users) and replace them with PWAs, such as Google Drive, Google Maps and Google Photos.

Google is going much further with the popularisation of PWAs; since 2019, it has been possible to publish them directly via the Play Store. The App Store could not be much more different. Apple broadly rejects applications with features and functions that are mainly based on web technology, arguing that they are more suitable for Safari. Apple actually prefers to use the term ' HTML5 App', rather than 'Progressive Web App'. This attitude becomes more understandable with a closer look at what the App Store represents for Apple...

The App Store: a good little earner

Many developers feel that Apple's strategy is not web-oriented. The focus is placed firmly on the App Store, and with good reason. In 2019, it generated 50 billion dollars, with Apple taking a 30% commission on each payment and giving 70% to developers. It is not hard to imagine the astronomical sums involved!

To put these figures into perspective, 99% of the mobile OS market is held by Apple and Google, leaving virtually nothing for their competitors. Of this 99%, while the iOS represents only 25%, the App Store's revenue far exceeds that of the Play Store, which is less than 30 billion dollars, despite the fact that it holds 74% of the mobile OS market share. Apple focusses on a "premium" segment, which is more willing to part with its money.

A closed ecosystem, a long-standing rivalry with Google and, lastly, a profitable store: these are the three main reasons for Apple's reluctance to invest in PWAs. However, it looks very likely that PWAs will become a standard in the future, like responsive design, which is now standard for most websites. In terms of user experience, there are clear advantages compared with the "conventional" web.

In my opinion, the number-one reason is the economic aspect and the App Store's huge financial importance. Why should Apple redirect its efforts when everything is working so well? Some advertisers, such as Spotify, have taken advantage of the growth of PWAs to become less dependent on Apple and its 30% commission taken on in-app purchases, and they are not alone in doing so. While it may be some time before there are many PWAs in the Apple ecosystem, the foundations have already been laid.

Eric Thean, Mobility Consulting Manager

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